ART – Caleb Cole’s Voyeuristic Empathy

Caleb Cole is photographer that places himself inside of other people, and sometimes—dolls. 

After discovering Caleb’s work through a series of internet clicks (stemming from a doll part Google image binge), Kate Sierzputowski called up the Midwest transplant and current Bostonian to look deeper into this affliction for hoarding thrift store finds and vintage group photographs. Through his work he forces the forgotten characters surrounding us to be called forward and gain an isolated focus.

KS: What was your inspiration for Other People’s Clothes?
CC: It’s part of my life and art-making process that I’m always going to thrift stores and yard sales. I love looking at other people’s stuff and thinking about what it means to who they are as people, what their desires and motivations are and what their story is. It started out with finding unique things, and pieces of clothing and thinking ‘Who owned this? What were they all about?’ I would start buying or finding clothes in the street, or borrowing pieces of clothes and dreaming up new characters to fill those clothes. Then I would put them on and give that character life, letting them play out a moment.

Girl in the Backseat, 2007

KS: One of my favorite photographs from the series is “The Girl in the Backseat.” Could you give me the thought process behind that character?
CC: It was one that I shot pretty early on, but then I edited her out because I received such strong reactions and I wasn’t sure if it fit. I brought her out a few years later. I think a lot of people are reacting to who they perceive her to be.The duct tape shoes, that she’s in the backseat of this car, because the car itself is so middle class. They look at her and they think ‘What’s she doing in this car?’ Some people think, “Oh, this is some bratty teenager or something,” and then some people are like, ‘This is a working woman who is in the backseat of a john.’

My thought process for creating [the images] is sometimes specific and I know exactly what situation this person is in. Other times it is much fuzzier. This is one of those situations where I didn’t have an exact plan of who she was—I just knew that this was where she needed to be. The earring I found in the street, the jumper I found at a dollar store, and the shoes interestingly enough are my wife’s. I don’t know why she taped them up with duct tape, but she threw them away and I rescued them out of the trash.

It’s not a voyeuristic sympathy but an empathy.

KS: Why did you choose to only transform yourself with clothing?
CC: For me that is super important because a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, this reminds me of Cindy Sherman, why don’t you do exactly what she does and totally transform yourself?’ I am really interested in not being fully transformed. I think these [photographs] work best as a group—a series. Being able to clearly identify me and my body in each one I hope allows you to dispel some of your preconceived notions about who someone is based on someone’s body, race or gender style. I think in the end it is about this being a document of me putting this on and me trying to explore this character. In a little bit of a way it’s like a document of my performance. Seeing me there is sort of part of it. There is this common denominator of my body that as you look at more and more of them, you don’t see me in the same way anymore.

KS: You have been working on this series since 2007, how has the project evolved since the invention of your first character?
CC: One of my first ones I did was Superman as a little kid in a basement with a teddy bear in 2007. Then in 2012, I did another young child picture. In that one I am balder and heavier and I look older. I don’t want to veer into the place where it is funny that this old guy is dressing up like a kid, or dressing up like a girl, and that’s what is funny or interesting about it. As time goes on I think about how this particular body that I have, or the particular gender style that I have—how does that work with the characters or not.

Superman, 2007

Calm Yourself, 2012

KS: How do you better understand yourself by becoming these characters?
CC: Sometimes you are so alone in your feelings of isolation…or when your expectations don’t match up with your life circumstance. In some ways through making [this series], I am seeking to understand things about myself, and to also make myself feel less alone in the creation of other people who are in similar facets of their life. It not only allows me to understand more about myself and think about my own life, but to connect with other people as well.

KS: Another favorite is “Man in ATM.’ It is relatable in ways I can’t understand.
CC: I don’t believe in universal, but I feel like there are a lot of universal feelings. It’s not a voyeuristic sympathy but an empathy.

Man in ATM, 2007

KS: You have been collecting your whole life. How long did you hold on to the photos for Odd One Out before beginning the project?
CC: I collect a lot of photos, not just group photos. I love portraits and thinking about people. I get to see them at that moment of their life, but they are probably dead now—which is sort of mind blowing to me. In group photos there is usually someone that I notice right away, and I have this spark of a connection with them. Usually that person seems totally different from everyone else in the group photo where you are supposed to smile, look at the camera, and follow the conventions of group photography. It occurred to me that I should start to represent that idea, and alter these photos in some way to see if that would function as an art piece. I tried it on one, and I got hooked and sort of obsessively started collecting these group photos to try to make this happen.

The Red Dress, 2010

KS: Sunday was a photograph that stood out for me because it is the first one in the series that has an object that isn’t whited out with the rest of the group. Are you implying that this is the reason the girl feels so isolated from the group?
CC: In so many group photos it’s just subject/camera. There is a group, and nothing is in front of them. Here it didn’t seem right to cut out the prop. It’s strange, but for some reason it felt that it had its own life, and it wasn’t a part of the group that should be isolated. It creates this sort of eerie relationship between the little girl who seems lost in front of this group of all men in front of this church, and it sort of floats there next to her. I love that relationship, and I feel that a lot of people respond to that imagery, the cross.

Sunday, 2012

KS: I am someone that is oddly drawn to the imagery of dolls and doll parts, what intrigues you about them?
CC: It’s so odd that we make these little versions of ourselves. As kids, you are caring for yourself. You pick out a doll that you identify with, or are given a doll that often times looks like you—or what you aspire to be. You then have it interact with other dolls, or use it as a prop to interact with other kids with their own dolls. It’s so fascinating how much it has to do with identity and relationships.

KS: What year did you start making these?
CC: I think I started a couple of them in 2011, but I really didn’t start getting into them until 2012. It took me that long to figure out what they were really about. Growing up you are usually told that you look like a certain celebrity, or people will comment on who you remind them of. People had only ever told me that I looked like cartoon characters or fictional characters. People in the past had told me that I looked like Tin Tin, and I found a Tin Tin doll and reconstructed it into a little me. I started seeing myself in all these little dolls because I feel like my body and gender style is so odd and ambiguous. Sometimes people think I’m 40, and other times people think I’m 21. I can look sort of masculine and sort of feminine. I would constantly troll the internet and antique stores for these dolls to transform. I have even more that aren’t on the site that I haven’t photographed yet. I feel like I am going to keep doing it until I have hundreds and hundreds to display. I want it to be overwhelming—just this insane amount of them.

Some of my dolls people will think are cute and with others they will be like, ‘Oh Jesus that is terrifying.’ I like the stuff that doesn’t have to do with identity or gender and sexuality. I like what is endearing and what is terrifying, that is fun to explore. When I didn’t have very good studio space we just had them everywhere like in our apartment. My wife and her friends would all of a sudden just see a small Caleb doll. I was like, “That’s all right. I’m just everywhere—naked, I guess.”

Dolls 7

Interview by Kate Sierzputowski of INSIDE \ WITHIN,
exploring the creative spaces of Chicago’s emerging and established artists. 


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